‘When the aircraft doors opened and we started walking out, a blast of tropical heat struck us. Opposite our exit was a long line of people in jungle fatigues … waiting to board a jet liner to take them back to the States,” remembered Ken Derringer. He arrived in Saigon in February 1969.
“They silently stared at us. They knew we were just arriving, whereas they had survived their tour in the ‘Nam and were on their way home. But, we could see on their faces, though glad to be going, were not rejoicing – for they felt pity on us – we had a long year ahead of us in the combat zone, which they knew some of us would not survive.”
At 27, Derringer was about to serve as an advisor to Vietnamese forces in the northern part of the Republic of Vietnam.
Derringer joined the Wyoming Army National Guard a year before graduating from Greybull High School in 1960. He then attended Northwest College in Powell before heading to basic training in Missouri. His unit, Company B of the 1022nd Engineer Battalion, was called into Federal service at Fort Lewis, Washington, during the Berlin Crisis of 1961-62.
Derringer then enlisted into the Regular Army. With a gift for languages, he tested successfully for German and was sent to Darmstadt, Germany, and the 547th Combat Engineer Battalion. Three years later, with orders to attend Officer Candidate School, he returned to the states with his German bride, Jutta.
After three years teaching at the Army Quartermaster School in Ft. Lee, Virginia, his obligatory active service as an officer came to an end. The Army needed junior officers in the combat zone of Vietnam, so he agreed stay on if they sent him to the Defense Language Institute to learn Vietnamese.
While there, he took an intensive 12-week course, in which he jokingly says he “learned to sing through my nose.” Prior to graduating from DLI, Ken was promoted to captain.
He believes that, contrary to WWII, when soldiers understood that they would be engaged in the war until its end, soldiers bound for Vietnam most often had only one year of duty there before returning to home and safety. Many of them also questioned the effectiveness of some policies.
“If you send someone to combat and tell him all he has to do is stay alive for a year, he might be less than enthusiastic about doing the job,” Derringer said. “All he wants to do is survive for that year. You aren’t necessarily going to win engagements if you’re thinking that. But, I’m a soldier so I followed lawful orders. The American people expected that of me.”
Derringer was assigned to the Military Advisory Command Vietnam Team 16, in Tam-Ky, Quang-Tin Province. His job was to provide logistics advice to Vietnamese troops known as regional forces and popular forces, as well as local nonmilitary people defending their villages. That is not to say that such advice was always followed.
Derringer recalled his relationship with his Vietnamese counterpart. “I was to be advising him, without trying to step in and run his people. Too many advisors made that mistake. The biggest challenge of the job was getting my counterpart to listen to me and reason with him why we should be doing something differently. Conversely, it was my place to listen to him and to understand and appreciate his views, as well. That was the advisory challenge – communicating across culture as well as language.
“The Vietnamese Army had a penchant for ‘dress right and cover down.’ They wanted to go into a warehouse and see all the crates in a straight line like in a parade. Sometimes my counterpart wouldn’t issue something somebody needed because it would disturb his display.”
The clash of ideas was particularly frustrating due to the danger Derringer and his counterpart’s people faced while delivering supplies by ground convoy or by aircraft throughout the province.
Cost of war
Derringer’s job put him in constant and close contact with the Vietnamese People and gave him a unique view of the war’s effect on the population. For example, local women came to the compound to perform various jobs. One day, Derringer’s laundress, a young newlywed, received word that her husband, a popular forces soldier, had been killed in action. Derringer drove her to Chu Lai to identify and claim his body.
“That was a very disturbing, sad duty,” he remembered.
“Dealing with the population, one was dealing with a war in which they were more the victims than anyone else. That was the worst part of the whole thing – how the people had to suffer. Especially the children.”
One result of life in a war zone was illustrated one day in Tam-Ky. As he was driving a jeep, Derringer passed a school which was dismissing the children for the day. Children were everywhere, laughing and running about. Somewhere, from outside the town, the enemy launched a rocket that struck violently nearby. Derringer quickly surveyed the surroundings to identify where it had impacted and then returned his attention to the children.
“When I looked around the street is empty,” He said. “There had been hundreds of kids running all over the place, shrieking, having fun … then ‘BOOM,’ this thing impacted several blocks away. There is no one in sight – no kids. They had all gone to the ground, instantly and instinctively. That’s what war does to people.”
Derringer left Vietnam in March 1970 and proceeded to a new assignment at the Seventh Army Training Center at Grafenwöhr, Germany. He later commanded a company at Giessen.
Living and loving
After a short time with the 1st Cavalry Dision in Texas, he left active duty in August 1973 to attend the University of Wyoming, where he gained his undergraduate degree, majoring in International Relations and Russian Language. While in Laramie, he encountered some rather vicious antiwar sentiment directed against him.
“Yes, some students tried to issue me a ration of flak. A somewhat shallow lot. They wanted to task me for having fought in the war. I had to remind them that, as voting-age citizens, they owed ME an explanation as to why they sent me there … Citizens are the ones who hire and fire political leaders. That’s how our system works.”
After graduate studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, Ken returned to active service. He graduated from the Army’s Command and General Staff College and subsequently retired in 1987 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Though they are not debilitating, he still experiences sudden floods of emotion relating to his war experiences.
“It is the emotion of the thing which keeps coming back,” he said. “Ever since I left the ‘Nam, these bouts of utter sadness come upon me, unbidden, often with me not knowing where they come from or why. If you take part in war, it is going to be, ever after, a part of who you are.
“I’d like to impress on all who read this, that war is not a personal matter – it is a result of human greed and politics. I know those North Vietnamese who were firing at me were every bit as frightened as was I – and I pray that those who survived are now enjoying their old age and their grandchildren. Just as I am doing.”
Ken returned to the Big Horn Basin to live in 2006. His wife died in 2009, and, after several years of widowhood, he met and married Nola, who grew up in Cowley in Big Horn County.
They live in peace and love near Hyattville.